By the time you read this article, I will be unemployed for only the second time since 1970. Okay, being retired isn’t exactly like being unemployed, but it probably will feel like it for at least a little while. I actually began putting together my thoughts about ‘tomorrow’ well in advance of my actual last day of work because for me to be considered ‘retired’, I have to make what is known as a ‘bonafide break’ in my association with the Ontonagon Area Schools. This means that after working for nearly fifty years (four decades of them for the OASD), I must disappear from the school environment I have haunted for forty three years for thirty days or risk losing my hard earned retirement. I can’t work, I can’t volunteer or even discuss any future connection with my former place of employment until thirty days after my last work day. Just to play it safe, I banked FTVs for all of July just to make sure that I am not tempted to breach the invisible wall between me and my former domain to buff up any loose ends. The phrase that keeps going through my head is “cold turkey”; one must walk away from their work life just like someone trying to break an addiction and if one loves what they do for a living, going to work is more like an addiction than a chore.
“Work” is a relative term because being raised by a couple of hard working parents of the Finlander persuasion means you do your part. Both of my parents spent their formative years surviving the Great Depression and World War II. Anyone with a similar family background will tell you, these two events imprinted a work ethic on them as only times of hardship can. Luckily for me, they passed the same ethos on to their kids by example. It used to drive me nuts when my dad would say things like, “Always be the hardest working guy in the room” until I realized where it came from. Of course, this dovetailed with, “The older you get, the smarter your parents will get,” and as usual, he was right on the button there, too. True to form, I repeated these phrases during all my working years along with, “If you want to show someone how smart you are, shut up (and listen) once in a while.” The last one took a while, but it was about the best advice he could give to the motor-mouthed younger me!
My dad started his working life as an underground iron miner in Wakefield before he joined the Michigan State Police. He took a break from the MSP to join the Army Air Corps but was given a medical discharge when the southern heat and humidity flared up the emphysema that dogged him as a child. He went back to the MSP from which he retired after nearly thirty years, worked a couple more years for NMU’s Campus Safety Department and then finished off his working career as an investigator for the Michigan Bureau of Licensing and Regulation. This means he retired at about the same age as I am now. Before they married, my mother spent some time working in a boot factory just outside of Chicago which is where they tied the knot when dad was discharged from the Army. In the salary structure of the day, she had her hands full making sure every penny that came in went toward keeping their growing family in food and clothing. Somehow ‘stay at home mom’ doesn’t quite capture the whole picture.
The one thing that helped our family make ends meet was dad’s knack for learning how to manage DIY projects. He may not have had any formal training in carpentry, electricity, plumbing, masonry, or mechanical repairs, but he was a quick study. If he helped someone out building or fixing something, he took away the knowledge necessary to DIY on other projects down the line. He built more garages, fireplaces and chimneys for our various family members and neighbors than I can remember. Pouring cement for foundations, sidewalks, driveways, curbs and garages in our neighborhood brought together a work force somewhat akin to an Amish barn raising and dad was in there slinging mud with the best of them. If we weren’t helping to build something, we were taking something apart for the lumber and bricks. To this day, I still find myself straightening bent nails for reuse because one never throws away a perfectly good nail just because it gets a little out of shape! If dad was involved with a project, so were the kids and everything I know about pounding a nail or laying a row of cement blocks came from being the ‘helper’ on various jobs. Even my old neighbor and geography professor/college graduate school advisor Pat Farrell used to tell me, “Everything I know about slinging mud (cement) I learned from your father” so I guess I wasn’t the only one.
All of this comes to mind because the summer after I graduated from high school, I set out to find a ‘real job’ to keep me occupied before I started college. I made the rounds of the usual places my friends were getting jobs like the first big box store in town (Shopko) and the two largest hotel-restaurants (Holiday Inn and Ramada Inn). Having filled out job applications here and there, things were looking pretty glum until the manager of the Holiday Inn seemed to take an interest in my paperwork. He scanned it and then peeked over his reading glasses and inquired, “What kind of work have you done?” I said, “I have played in a band, helped my dad cut firewood, do cement work and building projects.” He interrupted me saying, “Not home chores, what kind of real work have you done?” I couldn’t see how this related to the busboy job that was open and no doubt I took myself out of the running, by replying, “These weren’t just home chores, these were real jobs. Working for my dad means work with a capital ‘W’.” End of interview.
Fate has this wonderful knack for keeping some doors locked and opening the right ones at the right time. While I was struggling to find any job, my dad ran into an old acquaintance from his days in the Marquette County Law Enforcement Association. When his buddy retired as the Marquette County Sheriff, he had taken over as the resident manager of the Huron Mountain Club. One thing lead to another and I suddenly had a busboy job for the summer. My summer plan hadn’t included moving thirty miles northwest to work in a kitchen, but that is exactly what happened. It worked out so well that I spent three years living a backward college life. Instead of going away to college, I lived at home to attend NMU and then went away for three months in the summer to work at the club. The first year that I wasn’t at the club, I ended up traveling the other direction and spending the summer working as the student assistant to the manager at NMU’s Field Station at Cusino Lake, east of Munising. From 1970 to 1975 I was playing in bands, working in the HMC kitchen, working at the Field Station and going to school full time. There was also the one semester when I went from being a twenty hour per week office assistant to being the Geography Department fill in secretary, but that is a whole other chapter in the work saga. It crossed my mind that if I did find a teaching job, it might actually allow me to have a little more free time than I had experienced working multiple jobs since my senior year in high school.
Having sent out nearly 100 letters of application during my senior year at NMU, it was a little disappointing that I netted exactly one interview in May of 1975. It was in a little town just outside of Gaylord that was literally two bends in the road with a gas station, a couple of stores and a school. There used to be two gas stations but one had been converted to the school superintendent’s office. Their job notice said, “Do not apply if you don’t want to live in a really rural area” but I figured “apply for everything and go from there.” My buddy Jim drove down to the interview with me and spent a couple of hours cruising the backroads while the super looked me over and showed me the school. When Jim picked me up and asked how it went, I told him, “I don’t know. It started fine but for some reason, this guy just didn’t like me.” When Jim tried to put a positive spin on it, I said, “No, I mean he didn’t like me. He acknowledge they wanted someone with more chemistry background, but they could work around that, but along the way, the atmosphere in the room got real cold and the interview ended with ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’.”
Taking a two week trip to visit my other high school buddy Mitch in Portland would have been more fun if it had come before my unproductive interview. I resolved to dig in that much harder and put what I started calling ‘my practice interview’ behind me. My first visit to the job center at NMU upon returning from Oregon was another fateful turn. The girl working on the postings was just putting a job announcement in a three ring binder. It was for a Junior High science position at a little western U.P. town called Ontonagon. Being Johnny on the spot, my application was on file and I got a call for an interview before the monthly mass mailing of job postings went out to other job seekers. By the first week of July, I found myself sitting in Elementary-Junior High principal Jim Ollila’s office trying to convince him that I was superman. After my other botched interview, my new strategy was going to be ‘I can do anything’. When he introduced me to Superintendent Jim Weber, he only asked me one question: “What makes you think you can handle discipline with Junior High students?” I told him the story of the eighth grade boy I had taken on as a mentoring project when I was student teaching. It seemed like we were making progress until he got suspended from school for riding a motorcycle down the hall just after I had finished student teaching. My conclusion was, “I figure if I could handle him, I could probably handle just about anything that came my way.” I did not promise I could leap over tall buildings in a single bound, however!
One week later, I was painting the garage at my folks when my mother called out the window that I had a phone call. Jim O came right to the point; “Are you still interested in the job and if you are, when can you come and sign a contract?” I said, “Yes I am and I will be there tomorrow morning at 9 AM.” He suggested 11 AM, and as they say, the rest is history. Well, almost.
Some years later, we were having dinner at my folks house and I mentioned how fortuitous it was that my first interview ended so badly. It worked out for the best because Ontonagon was a better fit for me. My dad agreed and mentioned the super I had the bad interview with by name. Surprised, I asked how in the world he remembered the guy’s name from a one off interview I had several years ago. It turned out that the interview had turned sour about the time he asked me where my family was from. I had said, “They live in Marquette now but both of my parents were originally from Wakefield.” I didn’t get a lot of details, but it seems that super was from another little town in the western U.P. and he had enough scrapes with the ‘boys from Wakefield’ that (according to dad) “he must still be harboring a grudge!” That was kind of a newsflash for me: “I had a bad interview because it was with someone you may have knocked heads with when you were in high school?” Dad said, “No, not me. I never had any problem with him, but I know he didn’t like some people from Wakefield.” I can still feel the cosmic wheels turning – fate must of had a different plan for me and forty three years later, it has worked out pretty well for me.
When I finished my interview in Ontonagon, I called my mother and told her I was going to take a little swing up to Houghton just to look around. When she asked, “How did the interview go?” all I could say was, “It was great. If I don’t get a teaching job here based on this interview, I probably won’t get a teaching job anywhere.” I like to think that fate set me down in the right place at the right time. My eternal thanks go out to both Jim Ollila and Big Jim Weber for taking a chance on this rookie Geography-Earth Science teacher who was pretending to be Superman.
Thank you to everyone who wished me well and said thank you during my last days on the job. It has been my honor and privilege to work and live in Ontonagon.
Top Piece Video: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Working Man . . . which I like to think I came from a long line of . . .